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Limiting our carbon footprint in a post COVID-19 world — we shouldn't go back to business as usual

The Hill logo The Hill 3/24/2020 Vinod Thomas, opinion contributor
a factory with smoke coming out of the clouds in the sky: Limiting our carbon footprint in a post COVID-19 world — we shouldn't go back to business as usual © iStock Limiting our carbon footprint in a post COVID-19 world — we shouldn't go back to business as usual

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As the COVID-19 exacts an unimaginable price in lives and livelihoods, it is hard to think of anything else right now. 

Yet, the pandemic will pass and the economy will recover. The stimulus packages that governments initiate to revive their economies must anticipate the even bigger climate danger. Simply returning to carbon-intensive ways of growing will only hasten this looming catastrophe.

Carbon emissions have fallen worldwide because of the economic slump, but the economic recovery must be shaped in ways that do not restore them.

In the past three years, carbon emissions rose in the largest emitting nations: China, the United States and India. As the large economies prepare economic stimulus packages, they should avoid a dash for growth at any cost, which would aggravate climate change and put lives in peril. Financial support to struggling industries should be conditional on fossil fuel cutbacks, and to banks, conditional on them not lending for oil exploration.

The United States plans to spend $2 trillion - or 10 percent of GDP - for economic stimulus. One rule of thumb is that the fiscal package should be as large as the expected drop in GDP. A fall in global GDP, say 5 to 10 percent, will require a stimulus of $4.25 trillion to $8.5 trillion. While the needed spending to slow climate change is not directly comparable, there is an opportunity to use the revitalization budget in a climate friendly way.

The tipping point has already been reached in the struggle to keep temperatures from rising 1.5 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels. Relative to stimulus packages, climate mitigation - like switching from fossil fuels to renewable fuels - could cost, by one estimate, $2.4 trillion a year globally over the next 10 years. The economic gains from this mitigation would far outstrip the financial cost. The price tag of climate adaptation, like developing climate resilient farming, is an estimated $1.8 trillion over the next 10 years.

The emergency measures and powers being used by governments to tackle COVID-19 have put countries on a war footing. The same resolve is needed to fight climate change.

For the most part, people are listening to their governments on the pandemic. That receptiveness needs to be sustained in reducing our carbon footprints: visit a national park rather than take a cruise; work more from home rather than drive to work.

As the world heads toward 3 degrees centigrade warming, the damage will be devastating, putting huge strains on food security, water supply and health services. There is a link to pandemics, like COVID-19, and a warmer world, coupled with human encroachment into wildlife habitats, and greater possibilities of animal-to-human virus transmissions.

Global action on climate change, however, pales in comparison with the COVID-19 response. The reason is not hard to understand: the pandemic arrived like a bolt from the blue; climate change is unfolding as a series of slow onset events that are either occurring over many years, through the increased frequency of severe weather-related floods, storms and droughts.

Despite compelling evidence on the climate-disaster link - the floods and forest fires - the climate crisis, to many, still feels futuristic. Immediate results to stem COVID-19 are being achieved in countries that have imposed draconian measures. But cutting carbon emissions in the U.S. needs to be complemented by others to influence global pollution - and the results will accrue only over time.

That said, an emerging reality could aid climate mitigation. The pandemic reveals the value of energy security and of investment in low carbon energy, such as solar and wind. Evidence shows that investing in renewables can generate more jobs than going back to carbon-intensive growth.

The immediate political climate in Washington notwithstanding, looking ahead, the government should lean on the airlines, the shipping and hospitality industries, to reduce their carbon footprints in return for any support. Bailouts can be structured to help deliver carbon emission targets. Airlines should improve flight routes and airplane designs to cut emissions, banks should end funding fossil fuel projects, and the already subsidized fossil fuel industry should not get financial support.

The world is mired in the worst disaster of our times. The much needed stimulus packages that governments are readying to revive their economies and lessen the suffering must ameliorate rather than aggravate the even more deadly climate crisis.

Vinod Thomas is a visiting professor at the National University of Singapore. He is the former direct-general and senior vice president of the Independent Evaluation Group at the World Bank Group.

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